Wild Card Preview: Indianapolis Colts vs. Buffalo Bills
The “second season” is now upon us. Tomorrow, the Buffalo Bills will kick off the NFL Playoffs with their Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts. The expectations for the Bills have skyrocketed over the final month of the season, which has Bills fans, as well as the national media, calling the Bills the team to beat this postseason. A loss on Saturday would be a massive disappointment and a very sour ending to what has been one of, if not the best, regular seasons in franchise history. Let’s breakdown Frank Reich’s crew and take a look at this matchup.
The Last Five
Colts 37 Bills 5 (2018)
Bills 13 Colts 7 (OT) (2017)
Bills 27 Colts 14 (2015)
Colts 20 Bills 13 (2012)
Bills 30 Colts 7 (2010)
Out of all of the teams that the Bills could have faced in the first round of the playoffs, the Colts are the ones with whom they have the least amount of recent experience. There is not too much that we can glean from the recent history aside from taking a quick stroll down memory lane. I think we all can remember the 2015 game: Rex Ryan’s debut as Bills head coach.
After his defense shut down Andrew Luck in Week 1, optimism was at a level that I had not seen eclipsed since this season. As we all know, the Colts didn’t end up being very good that year, which made the win less impressive as the season went on, and Ryan’s defense never looked as sharp as it did in that opening week.
The ‘Snow Bowl” was the game in 2017, a day that I will never forget. I remember driving down 20A in nearly white-out conditions and thinking that if I ever got to the stadium, it would be a football game unlike anything I had ever seen. Joe Webb and Deonte Thompson bailed out the Bills in overtime, and by the time I got back to my car, it was completely buried. I remember fans helping push each other’s cars out of the snow (I still wonder how the last guy ended up getting out without anyone to help him…).
Finally, the 2018 game is memorable because it represents what many consider the low point of the Sean McDermott era. You might remember Derek Anderson starting that game on just a few days of practice. With Josh Allen hurt and after Nathan Peterman imploded for the third time, the Bills had no other choice to sign someone off the street to play over Peterman. It was one of the ugliest games I have ever seen, as Anderson finished with a quarterback rating of 39.8 and the Bills scored a total of five points.
What To Watch For: Bills
Mafia Family Reunion – After eight regular-season games in Orchard Park without them, Bills Mafia will return home on Saturday afternoon. While the stadium will only be at roughly 9% capacity, you can bet that Bills fans at 9% will be louder than most other fanbases at 100%. You know the team will be fired up to play in front of their fans at home for the first time this year. The lucky fans who will be in attendance have waited 25 years for a home playoff game. I have no doubt that having fans there will impact the result of this game.
Beasley & Diggs – Bills fans have spent the week feeling very confident in this matchup with the Colts and for good reason. One cause for concern, however, is the health of the man who led the NFL in both receptions (127) and yards (1,535) this season, Stefon Diggs. Diggs is dealing with an oblique injury and is listed as questionable for Saturday. Yesterday, Sean McDermott said that he didn’t know if he would be available for the game. I’d guess that McDermott is playing coy and trying not to give too much away to the Colts since Diggs told reporters on Wednesday “I’m fine” when asked about the injury. If Diggs does not play in this game, it would change the trajectory of this matchup. Another key piece of the offense is Cole Beasley, who was listed as week-to-week after getting injured late in the Week 16 win against New England. McDermott has also given the impression that Beasley’s status for the game does not look good. However on Thursday, Beasley, like Diggs, was limited in practice and is listed as questionable for the game. Isaiah McKenzie proved that he can be a reliable suitor in the slot position for a game or two, but if the Bills are to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will want Beasley back in the lineup.
The Penultimate Demon – Something that has made this season so special has been the Bills’ ability to reverse their bad fortune of the past 25 years. One by one they have been able to exorcise their demons of the past: beating the Patriots, sweeping the division, winning games on Monday Night and Sunday Night Football, beating top teams in the conference, winning the division, and setting franchise records. The way that I see it is the Bills have two more demons to conquer. The first, winning a playoff game for the first time since 1995. The Bills will need to wait a little bit longer for their final demon, as that one would occur in early February…
What To Watch For: Colts
Jonathan Taylor – If you have looked at any coverage for the Colts this week, you will have seen Taylor vs. the Bills’ run defense as a matchup that many Colts fans are betting on. The Bills’ run defense is viewed as the team’s biggest weakness to fans around the league, and so, the most logical path to victory for the Colts is on the ground. Taylor, the Offensive Rookie of the Month for December, is coming off the best game by a running back this year and the ninth-best game by a running back in NFL history, rushing for a whopping 253 yards. The victim of that game were the Jaguars, who finished the year as the second-worst defense in the league, statistically. The Bills’ defense made their way back to 14th overall after a very slow start to the year, so it will be much tougher for Taylor to have that kind of impact this week. Surprisingly, Taylor rushed for 100 yards in only three games this year, but the record-setting game one week ago certainly caught the attention of the league.
Player of the Month – Tomorrow afternoon, Jonathan Taylor won’t be the only Colt lining up with a monthly award to his name. Defensive tackle, DeForest Buckner, was named the AFC Defensive Player on the Month for December this week. Oddly enough, he will line up across from the AFC Offensive Player of the month in Josh Allen. In his final five games of the year, Buckner had 18 tackles, seven tackles for losses, six sacks, two defended passes, and 1 recovered fumble. The 26-year old out of Oregon was a large part of the Colts’ push to the playoffs with his consistent play, registering two or more sacks in three of their final five games. Buckner will look to carry his end-of-season surge into the playoffs and do his part to disrupt an offensive line that has given Josh Allen plenty of time to pick apart defenses this year.
Defense – While many think that Jonathan Taylor is the best way for the Colts to come out of this game victorious, I believe that the Colts’ defense provides the best path to victory for them. The Colts will bring into Buffalo a top-10 defense in nearly every category. The defense is ranked 8th in total yards, 2nd in rushing yards, 10th in passing yards per game, 10th in points against, and 8th in takeaways. They will try to suppress one of the best offenses in the league, an offense that ranks 2nd in total yards, 3rd in passing yards and 2nd in points per game. For the Colts to have any chance in this game, they will have to do something that only a few teams been able to do this year: make Josh Allen look human.
Bills 34 Colts 24 This will be the hardest game that the Bills will have played since the Steelers game, and I have no doubt they will be ready for it. Josh Allen and the Bills have been waiting for this moment since their collapse against the Texans last year in the Wild Card game, and I do not think they will let this opportunity pass them by. I suspect that the defense will bottle up Jonathan Taylor better than many are expecting, forcing Phillip Rivers to play some “hero ball” more than he is comfortable with. I think you will see a similar game plan tomorrow that they used against the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger last month. The Bills have been unstoppable on offense and are entering the NFL Playoffs universally considered the team to beat. After finishing 13-3 for only the 3rd time in franchise history and erasing past failures along the way, they have given me full confidence and no reason to think that this year isn’t a year of destiny for them.